The first weekend of the Great Lakes Power League 18 Super Open Division was marked by teams dealing with fresh faces, personnel changes, early graduations and injuries.
But there was one constant – the home team, at least on paper, looks mighty good.
Sports Performance 18 Elite, which returns just three players from last year’s AAU national runner-up, got off to a strong start Saturday while beating Uno Girls 17 Elite 25-11, 25-20, 25-17 and Krush VBC 17 National 25-9, 25-14, 25-11.
SPVB 18 Elite defeated Wildcat Jrs. 18 Black 25-19, 25-13, 20-25, 25-10 early Sunday and Energy 18U Elite 25-16, 25-13, 25-8 in a Gold Crossover later in the day to finish 4-0 on the weekend.
“It's a young group,” said SPVB 18 Elite coach Rick Butler of his team. “We have two sophomores, two juniors, and a junior rightside (Bolingbrook’s Natalie Mitchem) who has never played rightside until four weeks ago. So she's in a brand-new position. And we have a junior setter.
“They came out excited, like a lot of teams at this point in time, but we have a lot to work on and it’s going to take some time for this group to mature and grow up,” he added. “We’re looking for June right now. We’re not looking for January. There's a lot of potential.”
SPVB 18 Elite relied on its superior hitting to overcome some early-season mistakes and get past Uno Girls 17 Elite on Saturday.
“We hit .500 as a team in the match, and generally when a team hits well that team has a chance to do well," Butler said. “We can improve our passing and serving, blocking and timing and other things that were up and down, but when you can hit, that's a big start.”
With Lincoln-Way East product and Northwestern recruit Hanna Lesniak sidelined by a right ankle sprain, SPVB relied heavily on Plainfield Central’s 6-foot-4 sophomore Taylor Landfair against Uno.
The tall, athletic outside hit from everywhere on the court and was nearly unstoppable from the pin.
“Taylor is doing things that very few hitters can do,” Butler said. “Most hitters jump close to 10 feet. Taylor can jump 10 feet, 8 inches, and her reach is so long. We keep talking about playing with tempo, and the thing that a lot of setters don’t understand is that they think a fast set is a low set.
“But Taylor needs a high contact set,” he added. “She needs the setter to get the ball up there fast and let her take it out of there high above the net or she gets trapped around her ear. She can get blocked if the ball’s not high. If the ball is high, she may get touched, but she's not going to get blocked nearly as often.
“That's just a setting experience,” Butler said.
St. Charles East junior Mckenna Slavik is running a 5-1 for SPVB and admitted that it will take some time to learn the nuances of her new hitters.
“We’re still learning to play with each other,” said Slavik said, who is committed to Clemson. “I could have been a lot better, a lot smoother with my decisions and sets. I need to be more consistent with how I lead the ball for everyone.
“But it’s nice to know that even if our passes are a little off, I can still put the ball up and I can do something smart with it, keep the ball in play rather than trying to do something fancy and lose the point for us,” she added. “It's comforting to know that.”
Aurora Christian sophomore Cate Long was pulled up to replace Lesniak, who is expected back next week. Long’s ace and a two-handed “dunk” by Landfair at the net capped a 5-0 run after a pair of kills by Yorkville’s 5-10 junior Bella Zeman had pulled Uno within 12-11 in Game 2.
“I was nervous, but I'm excited to play with these girls,” Long said. “More excited than nervous. Our first contact wasn't really good, but we all stayed pretty positive the whole time. It can be intimidating. I’m not used to that level play.”
Uno Girls 18 Elite, which finished third in the Power League as 17s last year, had little trouble dispatching Energy 18U Elite 25-21, 25-8, 25-8 and Milwaukee Sting 17 White 25-11, 25-10, 25-17 in its two matches Saturday.
But the day was bittersweet for libero Taylor Baranski and her teammates, who were playing for the first time in several years without Illprepvb.com Player of the Year Alli Papesh. Papesh chose to graduate from Minooka early and join her new teammates at Dayton next week.
“It was really emotional when she told us she decided to graduate early because it was so late in the high school season,” Baranski said.
“We didn't realize it was our last season playing with her,” Baranski said. “But I also think it’s really cool that she comes to things. She was here today and she’s been practicing with us until she leaves.”
Papesh said she relied heavily on her parents before making the decision to graduate early and begin the next chapter in her career.
“I’ve been playing with these girls for pretty much my entire life,” she said. “It was really hard deciding what to do. My parents told me that I had to think about myself in that situation and what's going to be better for me in the future.
“It’s really sad leaving them, but I'm stepping into such a bigger role and I’m really excited about what lies ahead of me,” she added.
Papesh said she has been hearing regularly from her future teammates and coaches.
“They have been texting me that they can’t wait for me to get there, that they will be doing everything they can to make me comfortable,” she said. “My coaches are reaching out and telling me that they are getting more and more excited for me to be there.
“I know it's going to be fine, but it's also sad for me to leave,” Papesh said.
Papesh’s replacement in the Uno 18 Elite starting lineup is 5-10 junior Lauren Hatch from Marian Catholic, who made a strong impression in her debut with the big club.
“Lauren can be a great addition and a great fill-in for Alli,” Baranski said. “She’s super athletic she gets it done.”
Uno Girls 18 Elite defeated Far Out 17 Black 25-18, 25-14, 25-15 early Sunday and Wildcat Jrs. 18 Black 25-19, 25-22, 26-24 in a Gold Crossover later in the day to finish 4-0 on the weekend.
Players weren’t the only ones making their debut Saturday. Michio Chicago 18 National, which features 2016 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year Charley Niego of Mother McAuley and Savannah Thompson of 2017 Class 4A state champion Marist, has a new coach.
Bryn Kehoe, a Cincinnati, Ohio, native and graduate of Stanford University, came to Michio after working at a club that serves players age 14 and under in Chicago. Kehoe played her club ball for the now defunct Team Z in Cincinnati.
“I’m very lucky to have a team that is already very skilled,” she said. “Even more impressive is how motivated they are to improve. A lot of times when you’re working with 18s, they're really just looking toward their next year.
“I think this group is really committed to making their last club season special,” she said.
Not everything went smoothly on Day One for Kehoe, however. Wisconsin Premier 18 Teal surprised the south siders 26-24 in the first set of the day before Michio recovered to win 24-26, 25-6, 25-11, 25-11.
“The start surprised me, but it was also good learning experience,” Kehoe said. “We realized that 7:45 a.m. is pretty darn early, and we're going to have to figure out a way to be sharp that very first set because the competition is only going to get tougher.”
Michio was certainly sharp in its second match Saturday against Cyclones 18 Black Adidas. Kehoe’s charges breezed to a 25-13, 25-7, 25-10 win.
“What impressed me the most about our team today is the variety of our offensive attack,” she said. “Not only the different kinds of sets that our setters were running and the different kinds of offense, but also the different kinds of swings that all our hitters were able take.
“They were attacking all points of the net and all parts of the court,” Kehoe said.
Michio Chicago 18 National didn't miss its wake-up call Sunday, defeating WVA (Wisconsin Volleyball Academy) 17 Black 25-13, 25-12, 25-13 in its pool play finale and Epic United 18 Elite ROX 25-9, 25-15, 25-19 in a Gold Crossover later in the day to finish 4-0 on the weekend.
Illini Elite 18 Cardinal out of Bloomington was expected to be among the elite teams competing in the Great Lakes Power League 18 Super Open division.
The downstaters still might rank among the league’s best, but they will have to earn their props without the services of Champaign St. Thomas More’s 6-1 All-American Micah Allison and Normal Community’s 6-3 middle hitter Grace Cleveland.
Allison opted to graduate early and join her new team at Auburn, while Cleveland departed Illini Elite for Eastside Volleyball Club in East Peoria. Normal Community outside hitter MaKenna Barnhart was also unavailable Saturday.
“It was definitely different for us with this group, but we've had weeks of practice and by now we’ve been learning to work with each other,” said Hannah Sieg, a 6-1 middle hitter and Eastern Illinois recruit out of Normal Community West.
“Today we learned what worked and what didn't, and our coach (Kyle Cardwell) has worked with that, too, on things that will help us down the road,” Sieg said.
Illini Elite 18 Cardinal shook off a sluggish start in its 7:45 a.m. match to defeat Motion Volleyball 18 BLU 18-25, 25-13, 25-23, 25-23 and Fusion 16 Red 25-18, 25-18, 25-23.
Players who made their debut with the Bloomington club Saturday includes Madison Brown, a 5-9 setter/outside hitter from Arthur, Mallory Bergbower, a 5-10 junior outside hitter from Bloomington Central Catholic, and Delavan junior Isabella Clayton.
Illini Elite still has Barnhart and Hannah Thompson, a 5-foot-8 outside hitter committed to Bradley who had 16 kills and 14 digs in a 25-22, 25-22 Class 4A sectional semifinal triumph over Normal Community in late October.
But how will 18 Cardinal compensate for the loss of Allison and Cleveland?
“We have to try to find hitters as big as them and still find a way to win, because obviously they were our biggest hitters,” Sieg said. “We’re a little smaller now. We have to find certain things to get around that and still play as hard as we can.”
Illini Elite slipped to 2-1 in Power League play early Sunday, falling to Milwaukee Sting 17 Gold 25-18, 22-25, 17-25, 25-18, 15-7. The Bloomington club was scheduled to meet Far Out 18 Black in a Gold Crossover later in the day.
1st Alliance 17 Silver, expected to be one of the top 17s teams competing in the 18 Super Open division, ran into a buzz saw in its second match of the day Saturday against Far Out 18 Gold out of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Far Out defeated 1st Alliance 17 Silver 25-16, 25-19, 25-19 to drop the girls from Western Springs to 1-1.
“Far Out is a big team that has ball control, and the biggest weakness we could have exploited that we didn’t was our one-on-one blocking matchups when we were attacking,” 1st Alliance coach Danielle Mikos said.
“I just told the girls that they have to grow up a little bit when they see that matchup and swing hard,” the coach added. “When they don't have it, they could tip or go to the corner. It’s just growing pains … the normal thing.”
17 Silver lost several members of the team that finished 22nd in the 16 Open Division at the USAV Girls’ Junior National Championships last year as several players have moved up an age group.
However, 6-1 outside hitter Lucy Dumford of Downers Grove South, Richards outside hitter Sarah Murczek, 6-3 setter/rightside Mary Kate Lopez of Loyola and 5-8 setter Katie Mather of Marist are back, leaving Mikos optimistic.
“We’re still putting the pieces together, but they’re a really hard-working group,” Mikos said. “It’s a much, much faster game at this level than being on the second team. That’s what some of these girls are used to. But I feel hopeful that we're going to do well.”
1st Alliance 17 Silver bounced back from Saturday's loss to defeat Sports Performance's No. 4 18s team, SPVB 18 Red, 25-21, 21-25, 16-25, 25-20, 15-8, and was scheduled to meet the host club's unbeaten No. 2 18s team, SPVB 18 Kahl, later in the day.
Sky High Adidas 18 Black’s Genesis Sheridan and Kleja Cerniauskate are not the biggest middles around, but they came up huge Sunday on the final day of the opening weekend of the Great Lakes Power League 18 Super Open division.
Sheridan used a devastating quick hitter over the middle and Cerniauskate combined a devastating slide and some powerful serving to lead Sky High Adidas 18 Black to a 25-15, 25-19, 21-25, 25-13 victory over SPVB 18 White in both teams’ pool play finale.
Sheridan, who played her first three years at Prairie Ridge, and Crystal Lake South’s Cerniauskate teamed with Sky High Adidas 18 Black setter Amber Olson of Cary-Grove to keep SPVB 18 White’s defense on its heels.
“I love (the quick hitter),” Sheridan said. “I just get more power with it. I connect really well with Amber on them. We work on them a lot. We’re just really good at them.”
Sheridan and Cerniauskate flipped rotations Saturday to take greater advantage of both players’ strengths.
“We made the switch yesterday,” said Sky High coach Ray Rugebregt. “We actually had them the opposite, but we made the switch and it helps Sheridan keep everything in front of the setter while Cerniauskate produces more with the slides. She's been killing it.”
Cerniauskate also produced from the service line. She had two aces to extend a 21-19 lead in Game 2, and two more to break an 11-11 tie in Game 4.
“I think serving is the most important thing in volleyball,” said Cerniauskate, who guesstimated that she had more than 100 aces this fall for her Crystal Lake South high school team. “It’s an easy point, too.”
Sky High Adidas 18 Black also got key contributions from Emily and Megan Kelly of Crystal Lake Central and Molly Lambillotte of Geneva to finish 3-0 in pool play heading into its Gold Crossover against in-house rival Sky High Adidas 16 Black later Sunday.
“It does help to have a backcourt that can pass so that we’re always in system, and a setter who’s quick and somewhat deceptive,” Rugebregt said. “It helps us to create one-on-one situations.
“Like everyone else, we want to get our middles involved right away,” he added. “We really work hard on passing and serve receive, and once we get those guys (Sheridan and Cerniauskate) in system and score a lot of points it opens things up for us offensively.”
After 17 years at Club Fusion, Eric Schulze decided it was time to go out on his own.
“It became evident that both Fusion and myself were going in different directions, so I made a decision that it was time to give myself a chance to see if it could be done the way I wanted to do it,” Schulze said.
That’s how the Loves Park-based VC United volleyball club was born.
“We’ve had a great start,” he said. “I’m super ecstatic about it. We have 35 teams – six boys teams and 29 girls teams – and some really good talented players. We have a long way to go, but it’s year one.”
VC United is attracting players from the far northwest suburbs, Rockford and even north of the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The VC United 181 Elite team features Illinois players from McHenry (Gabby DiPersio), Keith Country Day (Alison Lipton and Ashley Wehrstein), Belvidere North (Brookelyn Messenger and Peyton Sewell) and Prairie Ridge (Sammi Lockwood) high schools.
“Rockford is probably the largest metropolitan area in the Midwest that does not have an elite club that you even knew by name,” Schulze said. “There’s been smaller clubs and things like that. So I thought the opportunity was right, the timing was right. I wasn’t too far off.”
VC United 181 Elite exhibited the usual growing pains on the first weekend of the Great Lakes Power League 18 Super Open division, falling to 1-3 with a 21-25, 25-21, 19-25, 25-22, 15-11 loss to 1st Alliance 18 Silver and a 25-22, 25-16, 25-13 loss to Milwaukee Sting 17 Black.
VC United led 11-8 in the fifth set against 1st Alliance and 13-10 in the fifth set in a 25-17, 21-25, 25-21, 12-25, 15-13 loss to Sky High Adidas 16 Black on Saturday.
“We’re young,” Schulze said. “We have a sophomore setter. Most of the kids are juniors. We have a lot of youth. It’s a big jump for these kids to go from playing mid-level 16s volleyball to open volleyball.
“But I like playing here with the big dogs,” he added. “The kids are working hard, we just weren't quite ready to finish these matches.”
But why the name – VC United?
“I've been doing a lot of international travel and coaching the last 10 years,” Schulze said. “The name has a little Euro feel to it. We’re doing some things that are pretty unique. We’re using the 5-and-1 substitution rules that are used in FIVB volleyball.
“All of our pins are playing six rotations,” he added. “We’re only using liberos and no defensive specialists. So I kind of stuck with the same theme and went with VC United … something European.”
For Great Lakes Power League 18 Super Open division results and standings, go to https://www.advancedeventsystems.com/EventResults/(S(hgpzyi45en1xqb55ix4ppl55))/Standings.aspx?e=PTAwMDAwMTM3MDI90&d=60254